Monthly Archives: June 2011

How bad Twitter links & apps can trick you

For more about tricks spammers and hackers use, read “How spammers attack Twitter.”

1. You can do nothing wrong, and still get hacked or hijacked!

Here’s why, and what you can do about it:

  1. You could think you are logging into Twitter.com, but not notice it is a lookalike phishing site.
    How to prevent this: Don’t login to Twitter.com unless you typed it in, or you read “twitter.com” in the URL bar of your browser.
  2. If your user information is stolen somewhere else, you could get hacked on Twitter.
    How to prevent this: Use unique passwords on each site you login to.
  3. Twitter can block a link from the bad guys, but in the next tweet you see, the bad guys can have replaced it with a working link.
    How to prevent this: Be careful what you click, and warn others if you learn of problems.
  4. An infected computer can steal your login info.
    How to prevent this: Keep your anti-virus up-to-date, and don’t login on computers that you don’t manage yourself.
  5. Using Twitter over a wireless connection (or on a compromised network) can expose your user information.
    How to prevent this: Turn on “HTTPS Only…Always use HTTPS” at http://twitter.com/settings/account

2. How it starts

Imagine you see a link in a tweet that says “OMG! Read the latest blog post from Twitter about this Twitter app!” and click it. Let’s look at six common things that can happen next:

  1. It can take you to the latest blog post from Twitter.
  2. It can take you to something that isn’t the latest blog post from Twitter, but tries to pretend it is. In other words, a malware or spam page.
  3. It can take you to an advertising page selling something, which can be either spam or malware.
  4. It can take you what looks like the authorization page for a Twitter app. This can be a real app that has NO bad intentions; a real app that DOES have bad intentions; a fake app page (usually with a spot to type in your username and password).
  5. It can take you to some version of a login page, for example, something that looks like Twitter.com after you have logged out. This is the worst case. It’s trying to get you to believe you have somehow been logged out of Twitter.com due to an error, hoping you will click to login so they can steal your login info and hack your account. If successful, not only can your Twitter account be hacked, they may try your login info on other popular websites like Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn etc and see if they can hack into those accounts as well.
  6. It can take you nowhere, possible because it used to lead to an app Twitter has suspended, or a link that has been blocked.

3. Warn others even after Twitter catches bad links

Option 6 means Twitter is protecting you. So you might figure that other people who click the Tweet don’t need to be warned, since Twitter has blocked the bad stuff. But the bad guys, as soon as they detect that a link or site has been blocked, keep tweeting the same or similar things with new links and websites that do the same bad things. And until Twitter catches it again, more people are spammed or infected with malware.

This is one reason spammers and accounts that send malware links try to create a lot of Twitter accounts, so that they can keep tweeting links to bad stuff. They will vary the text to avoid detection, and change the links to replace links that have been caught with new ones.

Also, realize that many advertising pages are not really designed to sell you something, they are designed to infect your computer or steal your personal information. So even if you’re positive something seems like “harmless” spam, it can be very dangerous.

So if you ever see multiple spam-like messages that you fear others may click on, or click yourself and find it blocked, it’s worth warning others. (Of course, some messages may seem very obvious that you should NOT click on them, and I understand that  you might not want to warn people about them.)

4. Protect yourself and others

  1. Never login to Twitter.com from a link. You should type “Twitter.com” into your browser by hand if you think you need to login, or at the very least, read the URL at the top of your browser very carefully to ensure you really ARE at Twitter.com.
  2. If you think you have been hacked http://bit.ly/BlockBadApps and read http://bit.ly/IfTwitterHacked (tweet this advice).
  3. If someone you trust even a little seems to be sending bad links, DM them and @ them to let them know they may have been hacked.

5. What Twitter does

Besides suspending bad apps (eventually) and blocking bad links (eventually) Twitter may reset passwords on accounts that have been hacked, especially if thousands are hacked at the same time. The @spam @safety @support accounts will tweet or retweet warnings or explanations of problems. And Status.Twitter.com will often share information if a hack becomes very, very widespread. Also, Twitter removes scams and spams hourly and daily.

6. Ways your Twitter account can get hijacked

  1. Your computer can be infected, and whoever is controlling the malware already on your computer can decide to use it to compromise your Twitter account (if the malware is designed to be able to do that). Just being infected doesn’t mean information can be stolen from your computer. Not all malware works in that way
  2. You can give your Twitter account to some site that asks for your Twitter login (even if you did this long ago), either thinking it is okay, or because you were fooled into thinking you were logged out of Twitter.com
  3. You are using a wireless connection, and have not set your Twitter account to https, and your login info is stolen through the air.
  4. You are using a wireless connection, and HAVE set your Twitter account to https, but someone has been “listening” in for awhile and has cracked your information or figured out how to initiate a “man in the middle” attack that fools your computer into thinking it is connecting to Twitter.com directly when it isn’t. These scenarios are exceedingly unlikely, but still possible.
  5. You click something that pops up while browsing the web asking you to authorize something that turns out to be malware.
  6. You use the same password on more than one site, and someone stole your password from one site and is now using it to hack into your Twitter account.

Realize that you can be hacked or infected even if you have done nothing wrong. When a company gets hacked, hackers often try the usernames and passwords they have stolen from the company on other sites. So if you used a company years ago for your email address and stopped using them years ago but didn’t delete your account, if they are hacked, and you use that password on other sites, you could be hacked on those other sites. Yes, they would have to figure out your username, but if you also use the same username or email address on multiple sites, hackers with stolen passwords have all they need.

7. How to make unique passwords easy:

Best is to add a letter to the end of each password so they’re different on each site. For example, if your password is 1W#m3H$ change it by adding a letter that corresponds to the site you’re on:

  1. 1W#m3H$T for Twitter
  2. 1W#m3H$F for Facebook
  3. 1W#m3H$L for LinkedIn
  4. Etc.

Also, although you CAN visit a site that infects your computer just by visiting, or that steals your login info, this is rare. It mostly only happens to people who are not using anti-virus programs or whose anti-virus programs are somehow not working properly. For example, adding an anti-virus program to an already infected computer will not necessarily get rid of all malware.

More commonly, you would have to authorize something that the website pops up before you’re in trouble. Also, stealing your Twitter login info directly just by visiting a site in this way is no longer possible, (though it used to be).

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My long, long conversation with a Twitter critic

You’ll need to read on to find out who “Alan” is, and why I am making a challenge to him, but first: the challenge…

My challenge to “Alan”

If he’ll explain clearly how he thinks I’m supposed to be using Twitter and for what reason, once we get his rules and reasons clarified I’ll make @TweetSmarter follow his rules for some portion of a month. I believe if he would just actually discuss how he thinks things should be done and why with me, instead of just lobbing complaints and disappearing, somewhere in the “whats” and “whys” some clearer understanding can come of this.

What we do now

A brief story…

When my wife and I abandoned our previous Twitter account (with Twitter’s help, at their suggestion), nearly 80,000 people followed the dead account…and over 31,000 were still following it eight months later. In other words, I built an account that even after it was DEAD got nearly 80,000 followers!

So you can see why I believe in quality over tactics as the best way to build a Twitter account: people follow an account with a good reputation even after it stops being active. You don’t need to be following users to be getting more followers.

As @TweetSmarter on Twitter, we engage with thousands of users every year, answering questions for them when they have Twitter problems, and providing thousands of links to Twitter “how to” material each year. The links we share get clicked as much as 600,000 times a month, and some have been retweeted tens of thousands of times. We follow thousands of users a year for a wide variety of reasons, but first and foremost to find real users we can engage on the topic of how to user Twitter well.

Feedback is critical

I make big and small changes in what I do in response to feedback all the time, and regularly explain and write extensively about how and why I use a variety of tools and strategies to find people to connect with. Whether feedback comes in the form of criticism, questions or praise, I welcome all of it. Many of what I consider my personal best practices have been honed in response to feedback. But, some people are harder to understand than others…

When everything you do is public, some people will take exception.

This is where “Alan” comes in. (Since he never provides a link or username when he comments here on this blog, I don’t know his real name.)

My first contact with Alan was his comment on the “Who is TweetSmarter” post the afternoon of August 8, 2010:

“Since your username was changed you guys have been pretty aggressive in following/unfollowing other Twitter users. Isn’t this the type of behavior that Twitter has warned about: “We monitor all accounts for aggressive following and follow churn (repeatedly following and un-following large numbers of other users).”

I understand that you’re probably disappointed that your organic growth stopped after the name change, but juicing your follower numbers via a “pump and dump” strategy seems beneath you. Is there another explaination for the activity that we see via a 3 month picture of follower/following stats on TwitterCounter? Thanks.”

Seemed like a good question to me, and I was happy to explain. I shared how our account had been split into an inactive account (@Twitter_Tips) and an active one (@TweetSmarter) and how I was following people who were following @Twitter_Tips in the expectation that they were trying to find @TweetSmarter, but that I had given that up after learning that they were by-and-large not very engaged accounts. I also showed follow data on the name change here, after writing about the name change.

Alan’s follow-up comment the next day was:

“Thanks for your thorough explanation – much appreciated.”

I next heard from Alan, again commenting about Twitter follow data, in early February, 2011. This was when my wife spent our free time over several weeks using ManageFlitter to semi-manually unfollow inactive accounts. It was a long, exhausting task! (Twitter’s automation rules allow no automated unfollowing, so it couldn’t be done any other way.) Alan wrote that it looked like we had followed a bunch of people, then unfollowed them all, and he was livid about it.

Unfollowing inactive accounts

I explained that you can’t see from looking at a Twitter follow chart who is being followed or unfollowed or why (follow 1000 and unfollow 1000 on the same day and the chart simply shows zero change), but then patiently pointed out a number of clues that made it pretty clear we were just unfollowing a couple years’ worth of inactive accounts. Alan wasn’t listening. Two days later, he followed up with more angry criticism:

“This is the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever seen. Your pump and dump tactics are so obvious to see and fly in the face on this post. Shame on you.…you PROACTIVELY followed [many] Twitter accounts, and then within the next week dumped nearly [all] of them.”

I then explained further, pointing out again how easy it was to see we hadn’t unfollowed any active accounts, and wrote in more details about how Twitter defines aggressive follow churn in response to his accusations. Alan responded:

“Your backtracking and rambling, roundabout attempts to explain and justify your actions isn’t helping your case. Maybe the noobs and rubes will buy it, but nobody else will….As I mentioned earlier, I think you’re providing a nice service for lots of folks. Don’t erode your brand with this nonsense.”

The chart he was complaining about is still recent enough (June/July 2011) that you can see most of our unfollowing activity on it here. I think it’s pretty obvious just by looking at it without any further explanation that it was a one-time unfollowing deal that took us several weeks to accomplish manually. And I explained how to search to confirm that we weren’t unfollowing active users. But…sigh…Alan wasn’t listening. He emphasized:

I’ve seen you guys follow and then [unfollow many accounts] several times before. This is not an isolated incident, but the magnitude of the dump is disturbing and suspicious.

If you check our TwitterCounter chart at present, you’ll see what looks like about 120 days of uninterrupted following. I didn’t stop unfollowing some users in response to Alan’s complaints. Sarah and I stopped doing it in part because it’s so much work! Since many more folks follow @TweetSmarter than we could ever follow back, there is little reason for us to unfollow many users that often. I used to take a week or so maybe four times a year to unfollow folks (which Alan refers to) but it’s a lot of work for little gain—mostly it discourages folks from hoping we’ll autofollow them back so they can unfollow us.

(Obviously, since at any one time there are as many as 80,000 more people following @TweetSmarter than we are following, it’s different for us than for accounts that may be unable to follow new people if they don’t unfollow some that don’t follow them back.)

Following people to find engaged users

He also complained more generally that we followed people who weren’t already following us. I explained how @TweetSmarter follows accounts to find people who need help or who give help. I repeatedly pointed out that followers didn’t matter unless people engaged one another, and that our goal was finding people to connect with. Major influence services such as Klout, for example, do NOT measure followers, they ONLY measure engagement. As you can imagine, helping people who tell others about our service is why @TweetSmarter is so popular/influential with real users, as measured by things like Klout, PeerIndex, TweetLevel, etc.

But the fact that @TweetSmarter also gained followers who didn’t engage bothered Alan greatly, and he was upset that I didn’t talk about it more. He seemed to say that since we did good things (responded to users, provided help, found and shared high-quality content) we shouldn’t talk about those things if we also followed a lot of people. Instead, I write about both here on this blog. In fact, to the boredom of many, there is very little that I don’t write about here ;)

And frankly, I don’t think anyone cares, give or take 100,000, how many followers @TweetSmarter has. We’ve got over 270,000 as I write this. If you first heard of @TweetSmarter, would it matter to you if we had 170 or 270 or 370 thousand followers? I doubt it! These are numbers I think best described as “more than enough.” So—who really cares?

Does Alan think that doing “quality” things means it’s bad to do “quantity” things?  I pointed him to articles explaining how and why I follow people on Twitter from the @TweetSmarter account, later also writing about how it’s not about how many people you follow on Twitter, but how many you engage with.

I didn’t hear from “Alan” for awhile after that, but on then on April 9 he tweeted from an anonymous account:

“Back to your old tricks – again? Following 20K people last month after unfollowing 70K since Jan 1. #Hypocrites #Pathetic”

He still wasn’t accepting that we had unfollowed years worth of old, inactive accounts—or he was just trying to make his statement in whatever way would make us look bad. He followed up on this theme on June 23, 2011, when I posted a slide show created by Brandon Whalen and team I called “Advanced techniques to grow your Twitter account.” In a comment on that post, he pointed out that I was still following more users than were following me back. And he was still hopping mad that I wasn’t talking about it enough, and wanted me to write about it more. But what more was there to say? I’d written hundreds of words across several posts explaining in detail how and why we followed people. What did he really want? I just can’t quite figure it out.

So, this time I tried something different…

I asked Alan to define specifically how I was supposed to be using Twitter. I also noted “You know I’ve never deleted any of your comments, so…go for it! Looking forward to hearing from you again!” Alan got back to me. He repeated what he thought was my “hypocrisy” and closed with:

I’m glad that it works for you. I wont be back again.

In other words, he declined to try to make things clear, he declined to have a conversation, he declined to try to teach or learn anything. I was disappointed.

While he never said so explicitly, “Alan” seemed to feel that there can never be good reasons for following many people before they follow you. What seems to anger him in particular is that we engage with thousands of different people each year, and talk about how and why we do that, but that since our account gains so many followers each year, we should be talking more about how we follow people instead. Specifically, Alan noted

What I object to is the hypocrisy of using the pre-emptive follow tactic while continually expounding on variations of the “how to earn your following” theme.

Alan seemingly just didn’t get it. Engagement is what matters on Twitter. Call it earning your reputation or whatever you like. Since I am transparent about what I do on Twitter, Alan could only complain that even though I talked about following and how I do it, by talking about engagement and service to others, I wasn’t talking about following enough.

Why some users hide what they are doing

During the months “Alan” and I had our conversation, I noticed more and more top users changing their following patterns, but not their results. It was clear some users had begun using more sophisticated software to smooth out bumps in their follow/unfollow patterns to avoid having to have conversations with users like Alan. I’ve written about this in detail at “How users break Twitter’s following rules and get away with it.”

But, I must admit, it’s really tiring engaging with critics like “Alan.” If Twitter changed their rules to let me automate following and unfollowing to make it harder for folks to see what we’re doing and complain about it, I might. People who complain, repeat themselves, seem to fail to listen or explain clearly, and then disconnect rather than engage wear me out sometimes :(

 

How users break Twitter’s following rules and get away with it

I’m going to show you how to identify users who may be breaking Twitter’s Terms of Service (TOS), but also show you why it’s hard to know for sure—and how newer, more sophisticated follow-unfollow software makes it impossible to tell.

What I’m going to be covering are uses of Twitter that will get your account suspended. For legitimate ways to gain followers quickly (such as contests and advertising), read this. One of the things that can help a lot is just knowing the best times to tweet, or learning what makes a tweet get the best response.

Why am I doing this?

Many people misinterpret available information. Some users are clearly using sophisticated software to (likely) hide how they are violating the TOS, others are clearly not. Inexperienced users often make the wrong assumptions about how experienced users are using Twitter. After reading this, you should have a much better idea of who is hiding something, who is barely getting away with something, and who has failed to get away with violating the TOS .

But, as I will point out repeatedly, there can be many, many different reasons for how someone follows and unfollows others on Twitter. Jumping to conclusions without doing some research first is always a bad idea!

How Twitter stops follow “churn”

Twitter says that if you follow a lot of users hoping to be followed back, wait a few days and then unfollow the ones that don’t follow you back, you can be suspended. It’s a practice that is against Twitter’s Terms of Service (TOS) called “follow churn” and they spell out that aggressive follow churn” is cause for suspension. Also, any kind of automated unfollowing is not allowed (which features of some popular apps violate).

Twitter helps make this hard to do by preventing users from following more than 10% that follow them, once a user follows 2,000 or more. So if 2,000 follow you, you can follow up to 2,200; if 10,000 follow you, you can follow up to 11,000, and so forth. This prevents anyone from simply following huge numbers of people just because they know a few will automatically follow them back. Twitter also limits all accounts to following no more than 1,000 per day, and commonly limits this further in individual cases. Of course, there is no one right number of people to follow. If you want to engage with people heavily, you may naturally follow fewer, and if you are primarily seeking links to information, you will likely follow more.

For more information, see

  1. The Twitter Rules
  2. Automation Rules and Best Practices
  3. Following Rules and Best Practice

How do people get caught?

What you may NOT know, is that thanks to more advanced software, it can be virtually impossible to catch users that are doing this. However, most still use less advanced software, and so you can often see a pattern in their following that still shows some “churning.”

The most popular software apps that automate following and unfollowing have for a long time done it by alternating following people and then unfollowing people. It creates a pattern you can see at TwitterCounter.com of several days of following more and more, followed by a shorter period of unfollowing. If you do this too frequently, such as repeatedly week after week, Twitter will suspend your account. All of the charts here are what TwitterCounter calls the “following” charts, meaning they show the total for each day that a user is following.

Finding churners by their charts—the old way

For a long time, users would get in touch with me and ask why their accounts had been suspended. I would put them in touch with Twitter and give them the “contest account suspension” information, but I would also check their following pattern. 95% of the time it was a classic TwitterCounter “churn” following pattern such as this:

Each time the churner is finished unfollowing the users that didn’t follow them back (points A and B) the total number of people they have followed is greater (B is higher than A). That’s because they are trying to only follow users that follow them back, and get ever higher numbers. So if they are successful, the chart will keep rising in this zig-zag pattern.

The particular pattern shown is slightly more modern, since there are several weeks between unfollowing periods. Earlier users who churned would repeat this pattern every week or so (point A and B would be only a few days apart), allowing them to gain followers faster, and leading more quickly to having their accounts suspended. It was necessary for users that hadn’t built up a larger following to churn more regularly, since if they followed other users for too long, they would break their 10% ratio and wouldn’t be allowed to follow any more.

Another classic chart is following for 1-2 days at once, waiting a few days to identify who doesn’t follow you back, then unfollowing then for 1-2 days. This is less sophisticated, and may look like this:

Some users do this to test different lists, to see which ones have the greatest percentage of users that will follow back quickly. If the user in the chart above was doing this, they didn’t find lists where many would follow them back, as there were only small gains from the jump up to the jump back down in most cases.

There are a lot of possible variations, but all have some kind of regular up-and-down with an overall rise:

Interpreting follow charts

TwitterCounter is the most popular place to see users follow patterns. Here for example is the 6-month follow chart of @JustinBieber. One thing to realize is that TwitterCounter doesn’t always record each day properly, sometimes due to technical issues, and sometimes due to users updating their charts at odd times. So if there is generally a smooth trend, with a day here and there that goes strangely flat followed by a day that jumps sharply upwards, you should ignore the “flat followed by jump” and just assume the trend was smooth throughout. Also, some users charts are not updated regularly. You can click “Update stats now” at the top of a TwitterCounter user page to see the latest stats.

Also, there are a variety of explanations for why a chart goes up or down. For example, you can’t tell if someone is unfollowing

  1. inactive accounts,
  2. spammers,
  3. active users that didn’t follow them back,
  4. People with the letter “e” in their name,
  5. etc.

This point is, by looking at follow charts, you don’t know for certain who was being unfollowed or why. But certain patterns happen so often, they are a pretty reliable indicator. Another reliable indicator if a person with username @user unfollows hundreds or more, you can search for “@user unfollowed me” at search.twitter.com. If there are a few of these, you can be pretty sure that @user is unfollowing active users, a few of which are using a service that announces their unfollows. If @user does a lot of unfollowing and there are zero tweets of complaint, they are likely only unfollowing inactive users.

Chart showing a user was suspended

You can often see this from either their following or followers chart. A period of growth, followed by a long period of steady decline. After being caught, the user was afraid to do any following for awhile, and either eventually bought more advanced software, quit playing the churn game, or began again more conservatively. This is hard to tell from a chart though, because the same thing can happen if people just become inactive on Twitter for awhile. You have to compare their frequently of tweeting. If they keep tweeting steadily, but their following charts looks like this, it’s quite possible they were suspended:

This is most likely to be a user who was suspended if their number of followers showed a steady gain in followers during the up-down periods, and a steady decline afterwards, and they tweeted steadily the whole time.

Some users have even bragged that they have been suspended and unsuspended multiple times, saying that “they have learned to push the envelope” on what Twitter allows. Of course, what they really mean is they’ve learned how to get worthless followers and ruin a Twitter account faster than anyone else!

Hiding churn partially…and completely

As users were suspended, unsuspended and experimented, some being suspended more than once (Twitter is less forgiving now), people began to try different methods for hiding their churn. Here’s one example of a following chart that is likely just trying to smooth and spread out churn:

There is the same up-and-down, but this time it is neither a zig-zag or up-and-down jumps, but a smooth line rising and then falling over several weeks’ time. The longer users take before unfollowing, the less Twitter considers it “churn.” This forces users using automated follow-unfollow software to grow their accounts slower. One reason popular users will do this is simply to avoid questions of “Why did you unfollow a bunch of people in one day?”

What is really happening here isn’t clear, of course. But it’s likely that this user is using some kind of app to identify who didn’t follow them back and then unfollow them, purely for the purpose of gaining more followers—churn—probably mixed in with some more natural following (people they chat with) and unfollowing (people that annoy them). Twitter allows any kind of pattern as long as it is not “aggressive” So, what is considered “aggressive?” Only Twitter knows, and they can change the definition at any time. But from looking at changes in user behavior, it seems that zig-zagging up and down more frequently than once every three weeks or so is now considered “aggressive.”

So over the years, users learned ways to work around Twitter’s rules, by following for longer periods before unfollowing. This made for less “churn.” Some also tested a reverse pattern, following a bunch all at once, then unfollowing slowly. But some time back advanced software began being sold, previously only used by people who paid programmers to create custom software for them.

How sophisticated users completely hide from Twitter rules

Here is the following chart of a well-known user who has stated publicly that they use auto-follow-back to follow anyone that follows them. The chart not shown here, showing gains in people following them, has had a very steady increase over the past year. Many months ago, this chart (of how many they follow) was steadily rising, followed by periodic drops (churn). Then one day, and for months since, it has looked like this:

How about that—a steady decline, all the while their number of followers continues to grow steadily unchanged. The most likely scenario here is that they are doing the same things they were before, but using software to avoid showing any ups or downs publicly.

Because of this user’s previous history and statement that they use auto-follow-back software, they are probably still following around 80 per day, but they are also unfollowing around 86 per day. The net results is -6, and a steady decline. This way they don’t get any complaints about how “they are unfollowing lots of people” or that they are “churning” due to having a chart that shows ups and downs. Newer software can keep detailed lists of users and gradually unfollow them here and there while still following new people, and adjust for autofollowing by unfollowing more or less depending on many people were followed that day.

So this user simply picked his strategies for how he wanted to follow and unfollow, and had the advanced software implement it so that it looks steady each day. Of course, there could be several alternate explanations for this. It could be that they stopped using auto-follow-back, stopped following anyone for any other reason, and just unfollowed a few people every day. But considering their history, and the fact that their follower growth line did NOT change, it’s likely they are doing exactly what they did before, but using software that allows them to mask it by mixing in a variety of kinds of follows and unfollows (likely in a pattern timed to appear “human-like”).

Also, much of the older software relied on the old Twitter interface to work. To try and look “human-like” it would open a hidden browser and use the Twitter.com web interface to do it’s following and unfollowing. Had it used an API connection, it would have been easier for Twitter to identify it violating Twitter automation rules. But the new Twitter interface is much less machine friendly, and so some of the old Twitter automation software will stop working once the old Twitter interface is permanently replaced by the new Twitter interface. So more sophisticated software is being bought by users who rely heavily on Twitter automation.

Unfollowing inactive users

Many Twitter accounts unfollow inactive users—users who haven’t tweeted for several months from time to time. Over the years, this can add up to a lot of accounts! I didn’t check for a very long time, and then used ManageFlitter to check one day, and I found there were around 80,000 accounts following @TweetSmarter that were inactive (hadn’t tweeted in over 30 days).

Here’s an example of a user for which there were no tweeted complaints that “@user is unfollowing me” but who apparently unfollowed over 30,000 users (each horizontal gray bar is 10,000 users). Unfollowing that many users with zero complaints showing up in search means they are virtually certain to only be unfollowing inactive users:

This user appears to have manually or semi-manually used some method for unfollowing inactive users, such as ManageFlitter.com (approved by Twitter). If the unfollowing were fully automated, there would be no reason for having so many different drops. It could simply be a steady decline, or with more sophisticated software, they could have spread it out and showed a slight curve down and then back up. In this case, it’s simply likely they unfollowed inactive accounts whenever they had free time over a few weeks.

Clearly this is also a user that does either or both auto-follow-back or find and follow several dozen users each day, as evidenced by the long steady upward line. (For more information on how @TweetSmarter follows other users, click here.)

Conditions that skew interpretations

Because people unfollow you, even if you ONLY follow people after they follow you, it can look like “churn” in your chart. Here’s why:

Imagine that someone has turned auto-follow-back on using a service like SocialOomph, but they have also gotten a reputation for following back. This mean that, over time, more users will seek them out in order to get them to follow back, and then unfollow them. So, as users unfollow them more and more, as long as they leave auto-follow-back on, each day they will follow more people than seem to follow them back, because other people are using them to gain their follow back.

So, as more and more users realize this account can be gamed in this way, there will be an ever greater disparity between how much their “follow” number rises each day, compared to how many follow them.

The funny thing is, each day they only follow people that follow them first! If no one unfollowed them, the number of people they follow and the number that follow them would go up exactly equally.

But because many of those users unfollow later, it looks like they are following many people, and only a few are following them back. In other words, using nothing but auto-follow-back can make it look like you are churning! This is because eventually you will have to unfollow the people that unfollowed you, or Twitter will block you from following anyone else when your ratio goes beyond 10%.

So by auto-following users that follow you first, you can appear to be doing churning, when the reality is that you are the one being churned by users that later unfollow you. Any account that follows more people each day than follow back could be intentionally following people that don’t follow them, and not having them all follow back, OR they could have simply left auto-follow-back turned on and are simply getting a lot of unfollows of people abusing them in order to gain a follow.

Problems with some large accounts

However, as popular user @ChrisBrogan has pointed out, for large accounts it can seem easier to leave auto-follow-back on so you automatically follow all the people you engage with each day, and then over time unfollow the spam users that creep in. Nonetheless, using auto-follow-back is fraught with problems no matter how you use Twitter, because it gives you a reputation that causes more and more low quality accounts to follow you over time.

Bigger accounts also get many people each day writing “Hey, please follow me back” and this clutters up their mentions inbox, making it more work to find the tweets from people you want to see. I got so annoyed with all the “Hey, follow me back” tweets that I once turned on auto-follow-back using SocialOomph just so I could get rid of them!

How many people should you follow on Twitter?

This is only for people that engage others! That means responding and conversing on Twitter. (People who don’t engage on Twitter need to learn how to use it better.)

So if you engage others on Twitter, how many people you follow depends on how you use following as a tool. There are a wide variety of strategies. Because of that, some people have more than one account, so they can use strategies for engaging with small groups that they follow from one account, and extract the benefits of larger groups on other accounts.

Following only people that you engage regularly with and cultivating those connections as a personal learning network is probably the most powerful use of Twitter. This usually (though not always) means following only a small group. This is usually the best way to start on Twitter, even if you later add another account or follow more users. If you have valid reasons for building a large presence on Twitter, see the fastest ways to help people find you on Twitter.

You can engage with anyone, regardless of follow relationships

This is one of the great benefits of Twitter. You can engage with all your followers, a subset of your followers, or a mix of followed and not followed. So, regardless of how many you follow, you can engage with small or large groups of people.

A lot of it comes down to this: How do you find folks to engage with? This can be done in multiple ways. Many search Twitter and elsewhere looking for Twitter users that lead to engagement opportunities. Twitter is a great place for finding people that you can help in some way.

One highly engaged user that follows many people is @Scobleizer. He searches for users to follow, and then primarily reads and searches his followers for engagement and education opportunities. Others use lists in similar ways, though since you can only have 20 lists with 500 followers/list, this can be limiting.

@Scobleizer uses the group of people he follows to find cutting edge information, and engage with the people who provide it. He initially followed most people back to be accessible by DM, but then found he had no value in reading his Twitter stream. He then unfollowed everyone, and began following only the folks whose tweets he wanted to see. He now follows a little over 32,000 people. He repeatedly talks about what great value he gets from reading his carefully selected stream, and is a strong engager on Twitter.

So there are two main strategies:

  1. If you are cultivating people primarily to gain education by strong engagement, you’ll follow fewer people.
  2. If you are following people primarily for education by information, you’ll follow more.

What about Twitter Etiquette?

Many people simply follow anyone who can pass a basic test as a real person on Twitter that follows them first, feeling that it is impolite not to follow back. This is fine for Twitter as a hobby, and can work (with some refinements) for businesses who have products or services that anyone anywhere could buy or benefit from.

Better is to review people that follow you by stricter criteria: Have they come to you for help or engagement? Are they responsive on Twitter, and someone you could use as a resource? If either is true, then following back (and reviewing later) is good.

Communication is the best engagement

The best way to engage someone is to communicate with them, on or off Twitter. If your first engagement with someone is by tweet, it’s good (though not necessary) to follow them first so they can DM you if needed, and so that they can follow you without any penalty from Twitter. It’s also good to engage before tweeting someone, such as retweeting something of theirs, or commenting on their blog.

The “penalty” is that because Twitter only allows you to follow 10% more than follow you (once you follow more than 2000), following someone who doesn’t follow you can mean you are blocked from following others eventually. In practice, this is rarely an issue for people who actually engage on Twitter, because they have no need to follow many more people than follow them.

This rule is to prevent a poor use of Twitter: following people you have no intention of engaging with, simply hoping they will follow you back to increase your number of followers, thereby making your account look more significant.  An equally poor use of following to gain followers is simply to hope to reach more people with your broadcast tweets.  Because using following as a tool to find users to engage with is so badly misused, it is often assumed that anyone that follows a lot of users is a spammer “until proven innocent.”

But: The whole point is to find people you want to engage with, whether you follow them first or not!

Using follow as a tool to find people to engage

See “Three secrets of following” for some of the problems of using following as a tool. However, if you have a very popular account on Twitter that gets lots of followers regardless of who you follow, it’s easier to carefully follow others as a tool to find people to engage with.

Since @TweetSmarter exists to provide help to Twitter users, for a long time I searched for users tweeting Twitter questions and answered them by tweet. But I discovered this was inefficient, partly because there are a LOT of tweets with questions about Twitter every day. It took a great deal of time to find, research and answer their questions. For smaller numbers of questions, such as perhaps a local business looking for people asking about a service they provide, it would be more efficient. Or if I had another person or two helping me I could probably respond to more “found” questions. But the large quantity made it inefficient, especially considering related issues such as:

  1. Some were suspicious of non-followers replying to them;
  2. Some had their questions answered already by the time I replied;
  3. Many never replied making it unclear if I had been able to help at all;
  4. Many new users didn’t know how to read their @replies yet, so didn’t see them (an awfully common problem);
  5. Too many were spammers asking questions trying to look “real;”

My hope was that by providing help, users would refer others who would need help, and @TweetSmarter could grow by referrals, and over time help more people without having to find ways to “market” the account. Other ways I tried helping people (such as on third-party sites) made it hard to connect with the people I helped on Twitter.

While I still do searches, now I follow users with Twitter questions instead, and then answer any questions directed to @TweetSmarter. I’ve tried a lot of different strategies for using following, and this is one that has had the best track record in engaging people who need help. @TweetSmarter is so popular it doesn’t matter who follows us back, and so I only occasionally unfollow anyone, and then mainly only inactive or obvious spam accounts (and a few very, very annoying people).

So I search for users that appear real, engaged and who are either helping others with Twitter questions or who have Twitter questions themselves, and then I follow some of them several days a week. I also auto-follow-back a few users, such as most of the people I reply to on Twitter. Over the years, more and more tweets go out saying “Hey, @user, you should ask that question to @TweetSmarter” and so I follow @user so they can DM us. Of course, since that is a direct recommendation from one user to another, I could ignore it, and they would probably tweet and/or follow @TweetSmarter later, but I think it’s more helpful to follow them first.

Advanced techniques to grow your Twitter account

Note that are a ton of free tools you can use to find influential Twitter users (vs. some of the paid services shown in the slides).

A tweet from @javiergodoy led me to @jasoncormier‘s article at searchenginewatch.com which included this slide presentation by Brandon Whalen and team for capturetheconversation.com which is embedded below from Slideshare. Best viewed full screen.

Twitter Growth Strategies  

View more presentations from Room 214

 



How can you build a large following fast on Twitter? The ULTIMATE guide, part 2

Tip: You’ll need to have part 1 handy to get the most out of this post, and you might want to follow these tips for getting the most out of these ideas.

I get asked this a lot, both from folks who are not popular outside of Twitter and even from celebrities. The most common variation is “How do some people get such large Twitter followings?” The answer is:

To get a lot of followers you have to grow your following quickly, and do it over a long time.

Also, 5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Get More Followers covers the basics (with an infographic no less), so I won’t cover that here. Realize that I an NOT rehashing the Ultimate Guide, I’m just highlighting what works fastest.

How Can I Get Followers Quickly?

So this is the real question. The problem of course is that focusing solely on getting followers is a bad way to use Twitter. But a seemingly valid question is “What if I’m using Twitter fairly well right now, what’s the harm in having more followers?” While that seems reasonable, most of the things you have to do to get more followers FAST will screw up Twitter for you. But there are exceptions, depending on how and why you use Twitter.

Below, I reference by number the six sections of “The ULTIMATE guide to getting Twitter followers, part 1″ so you’ll need to scroll down and follow along with the sections at “Ultimate Guide, part 1″ if you want the details on what I’m referring to here. Don’t leave questions here asking for details! Read “Ultimate Guide” first. These are from best (recommended) to worst (don’t do this). In each section there are some things worth doing.

1. Build a reputation for quality and responsiveness.

► Fastest: Selectively connect with influencers. The quickest methods are:

  1. Become a “super advocate” for a few key people: This is the most powerful way to build your reputation and get influential users to promote you. Read more at “How ANYONE can become incredibly popular on Twitter, or ANY social network.” Many influential users are very focused on one particular niche, so it helps if you are also very focused on the same niche.
  2. Find popular users who trade retweets—they will retweet you if you retweet them. People don’t come out and say they do this, but most highly active Twitter users that have a lot of retweets in their stream do. Obviously you have to apply interpersonal networking skills to develop such relationships. Sending a “how are you?” tweet twice a week right after you retweet an influencer gets annoying pretty quickly.
  3. Find people you really want to follow regardless of other factors…and be someone really worth following!

As always, everything works best if you are genuinely interested in the people you connect with, and are ethical, sincere and learn from your mistakes.

Also works: Combine connecting with influencers with Tweeting very popular content—stuff that gets retweeted a lot. See “Ultimate Guide, part 1″ for examples.

Good if done selectively & honestly: Promote other users by blogging about them, tweeting recommendations to follow them (#FollowFriday, etc.), retweeting them, etc. A very popular strategy is to connect with a group of users and then write a blog post recommending the group. Doing favors for influencers is something best when it comes about naturally, and not as part of a strategy for building your influence.

2. Promote your account: Ads, Contests, Quizzes, Giveaways, Polls and Heavy Tweeting.

Fastest: Use “Pay with a tweet”-style giveaways, or have Twitter contests that reward followers, such as Twitter quizzes with a giveaway.

Good, but expensive: Advertise to get followers.

Also works: Once you get a few thousand real followers, begin tweeting more and more frequently and you will begin to grow more quickly. As “Ultimate Guide” points out though, you will also lose some followers by doing this. You need to find the balance as you grow.

Easiest to do: Promote your Twitter account from other places you are already popular, such as a blog or mailing list. While adding your Twitter username to emails, business cards, and even t-shirts is good…I draw the line at tattoos :)

3. Become Known As A “Follow-Backer” Or A “Retweet Reciprocator”

Generally a bad idea, since you get bad followers this way.

Easiest to do: Use a service like SocialOomph that will follow back everyone that follows you during key times when you are promoting your account, then use services like ManageFlitter to unfollow spam followers. If you are promoting yourself to good users, you should get much more good than bad. Turn off auto-follow the rest of the time.

4. Follow & Hope Some Follow Back: “Churning” Automation

Do this wrong and Twitter will suspend your account. People typically try to make lists of follow backers, or their followers, and follow those folks.

Easiest to do: Follow people you are interested in as part of engaging with them. The trick here is finding the right people. The more you lower your standards in order to find larger numbers of people, the worse this works.

5. Join Follower Groups: “Get Followers Fast” Sites

Join the wrong kinds of sites and Twitter will suspend your account. It is therefore very important that you know how to differentiate between sites where users simply follow one another versus Twitter directories and blog and retweet groups.

Easiest to do: Get listed in the main Twitter directories (a great list of them is at “How to find and engage influential Twitter users“).

Good if done selectively & honestly: Investigate and possibly experiment with sites such as Triberr and BlogGlue.

6. Multiple & Fake Accounts: Spammers and Follower Sellers

There can  be a variety of good reasons to have more than one Twitter account, such as one for networking/personal/learning and one for business. But most of the uses of multiple Twitter accounts to get more followers are suspension-worthy offenses.

What does @TweetSmarter do?

I do it the hard way—I spend more time than anyone else trying to find the very finest educational content about how to use Twitter. Because it is a HUGE amount of work, I make some mistakes every day. I solicit any and all feedback because that’s how I get better at this job. You can read more about how my wife and I manage the @TweetSmarter account here.

 

When Old Twitter went away

 

Update: On August 2, 2011, Twitter announced the end of Old Twitter:

UPDATE: On June 23—Twitter added this warning:

Will turning off the old Twitter.com interface cut down on spammers?

Interestingly, some third party services use browsers to access Twitter, instead of through the API. Why? Because they’re doing things Twitter doesn’t want users to do, like over-automating following and unfollowing. By doing it through a browser, and setting delays on actions (follow someone every so many seconds, for example) they are trying to trick Twitter into thinking they are human.

But new Twitter doesn’t work the same way, and I’m told not all third party software systems have figured out how to use it for following/unfollowing in order to trick Twitter into thinking they are human. So the day that the old Twitter.com interface is turned off, some Twitter automation software will stop working, or will have to operate less aggressively by using the API. Since spammers use Twitter automation pretty much exclusively, getting rid of the old Twitter.com could cut down on some of the more aggressive following and unfollowing by spammers.

When Twitter introduced the new Twitter.com site on September 14, 2010, they began saying that the old Twitter.com would go away in “several weeks.” Later they began saying that the “older version of Twitter…won’t be around much longer.”

Smart move by Twitter

Waiting to make the change seems like it was a wise move. When Twitter came out with the new interface, there were a lot of complaints. The majority of users stayed with the old interface initially. If Twitter had just forced the change onto users, there would almost certainly have been a loss of some users (and many switching to different interfaces).

Shortly before Twitter rolled out the new interface, Digg.com rolled out their new interface. Within a few weeks it was clear that Digg was losing users rapidly due to the change. Twitter could have shared the same fate.

But now, more recent polls show Twitter users adapting to the new Twitter.com interface, with many preferring it, or switching to other interfaces. So it seems like it is about time to retire the old Twitter interface.

TweetDeck for the Desktop: The Ultimate Manual

I created a 60-page manual for using TweetDeck on the desktop that I have only shared privately before. Scroll down to see the Table of Contents (click “Fullscreen” underneath to view larger). I’ve decided to make it public in a variety of formats:

  1. View it embedded on screen below (click the fullscreen icon at bottom to view larger).
  2. download or view the TweetDeck for the Desktop PDF here (recommended).
  3. View or download it as a Google Doc.

To view help for other versions of TweetDeck, or to see the latest information from TweetDeck, go to http://www.tweetdeck.com/support/. The content in this manual is taken from TweetDeck.com’s help topics (some people find the help topics online very difficult to use) with some light editing by myself. This is purely a public service to help new and existing TweetDeck desktop users whether their primary use of it is for Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

TweetDeck.tutorial 6.16